By Elizabeth Gartley
Often, when I’m speaking with educators about LGBTQ topics, one of the first questions I’m asked is “What does the Q stand for?” The primary definition that I provide is that “Q” stands for “questioning.” By acknowledging those who are questioning, we acknowledge those people, particularly young people, who for one reason or another, have not adopted an identity label, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and yet may still experience same-sex attraction or may not identify wholly with the gender identity they have been assigned.* This “Q” is easy to overlook, and yet particularly important to remember, especially for those who work with young people and in light of recent research.
A recent study by YouGov found that a third of young Americans (18 to 29 year-olds) don’t consider themselves “exclusively heterosexual.” Participants were asked to place themselves on the Kinsey Scale, a scale from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). A third of adults 18 to 29 placed themselves somewhere other than exclusively heterosexual, indicating some level of same-sex attraction. Interestingly, the survey data shows that while 10 percent of young adults identified themselves as bisexual, 29 percent placed themselves somewhere on the Kinsey scale other than “exclusively hetersexual” or “exclusively homosexual.” Overall, the study also concluded that younger adults were much more likely to acknowledge some level of fluid sexual attractions compared to older age brackets.
The biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Massachusetts has consistently found that more students in grades nine to 12 identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and/or report same-sex sexual contact than those who only identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. For example, in 2013, 5 percent of all students identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, but 8 percent identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and/orreported same-sex sexual contact. And a 2013 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that conventional survey methods lead to “substantial under-reporting of LGBT identity and behaviors” due to “social desirability bias,” that is, the tendency for people to not give responses they feel may be outside the mainstream.
As an educator, I find these kinds of studies interesting because I often find that many of my straight colleagues, teachers and school librarians, are somewhat naive in their assumptions about the LGBTQ students they serve. One of the messages I try to impart to my colleagues is that LGBTQ students are in their classrooms, whether they, as educators, are aware of them or not. Many times, teachers seem surprised by the suggestion that there are usually at least one or two LGBTQ students in every class they teach. There seems to be an implicit assumption among many educators that they will know when they have LGBTQ students in their classroom, as though to be LGBTQ, students must be publicly out to all in the school community.
“But no one in this class is gay,” is the kind of assumption that gets made without even the awareness that an assumption has been made, and this is what I try to challenge. Fortunately, in my experience, this isn’t a difficult bias to tackle; even a little bit of reflection will have people rethinking their assumptions.
In a recent Knowledge Quest article, Wendy Rickman surveyed Arkansas school library professionals and found that most responded that there were no self-identified LGBTQ students in their school, but a majority of respondents felt that there were LGBTQ students who had not yet self-identified. However, the survey also found that a majority of respondents were reluctant to purchase LGBTQ items for the library collection.
Educators, especially school librarians, have a responsibility to help students explore the world beyond their experience and to help students find themselves. School librarian’s strive to create a safe environment where students can learn more about who they are, to explore their interests and identities. We can’t wait for our LGBTQ students to be out, leading the GSA and advocating for themselves before we provide the resources they need. For those students who are LGBTQ but not out, or who are questioning, or who maybe aren’t ready to take LGBTQ-themed books out of the library yet, just seeing the resources are available will help them feel like they belong.
School librarians have a great opportunity to help normalize LGBTQ lives and experiences and portray sexual and gender diversity has part of the human experience. By creating a more inclusive collection and integrating LGBTQ titles into book talks, library displays, and reader’s advisory, all students will benefit: out LGBTQ students will see themselves reflected in their school library, straight students will see a more accurate representation of the diversity in the world, and “Q” students will see that they are not alone in their experiences.
*The Q in LGBTQ is often intended to simultaneously stand for “questioning” as well as “queer,” a loaded word which was once considered a slur, but has in recent decades been reclaimed by LGBT activists as an umbrella term or in some cases, a label an individual may adopt when more recognizable identity labels don’t seem to fit.